COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, school meals were free for all students in the US.

That federal program expired in 2022 but one state Senator wants to make school meals free again for students in South Carolina.

Senator Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) pre-filed a bill that would make breakfast and lunch offered at school free for all students. School districts that qualify for the federal Community Eligibility Program would be able to offer free meals.

According to data, currently, about 60% of students in South Carolina qualify for free or reduced meals. Sen. Shealy said, “A lot of children go to school and they don’t have a good breakfast or good lunch and sometimes that is the only meal they get during the day.”

The statewide nonprofit Wholespire advocates for increased access to nutritious meals for all across South Carolina. Executive Director Meg Stanley said this legislation would help their mission.

If universal free meals were offered in South Carolina, Stanley said it would help students academically and socially. “It would allow all children to reach their full academic potential. We don’t want a lack of nutrition contributing to their poor performance,” Stanley said.

Earlier this year, the organization surveyed school districts about universal free meals. They said 97% of those who responded said these meals were beneficial for students. Stanley said, “It reduced stigmas along with school meals and it also really provided a reduction in administrative burdens. So it was really beneficial for schools and schools districts as well.”

Senator Shealy said she’s waiting to see exactly how much it would all cost but she believes the state can offset any costs not covered by the federal program.

She said, “Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry. They can’t do well emotionally if they’re hungry.”

According to the nonprofit Feeding America, 1 in 7 children in South Carolina faces hunger.

The new legislative session begins January 10th.